Ross Feller: X/Winds


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Innova 911

 

This album is both an auspicious debut and a fine representative sampling of the compositional efforts of Ross Feller.  Feller holds MM and DMA degrees from the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana, that venerable rural Illinois institution which oversaw some of the most significant early developments in computer technology.  More importantly for the present context it is has been the home of many important composers whose works have incorporated this technology directly or indirectly.  Like similar centers in New York (Columbia-Princeton), Oakland (Mills College), Stanford (CNMAT), Berkeley (CCRMA) among others a distinctive musical thread developed in that rural outpost and it is this provenance that makes this recording of particular interest.  Feller is also an editor at the Computer Music Journal and teaches at Kenyon College.

Ross Feller at the Paul Sacher Stiftung

Feller represents the current state of the art whose ancestry includes the likes of Lejaren Hiller and Salvatore Martirano, both major innovators in both music and technology.  Martirano was one of his teachers and Martirano’s widow, the fine violinist Dorothy Martirano, performs on this recording.  This writer had the pleasure of hearing the Martiranos in concert some years ago and can attest to the astounding quality of the work of this too little known composer.  Judging by the works on this recording Feller appears to be a worthy successor.

Eight works are represented here ranging from solo to acoustic ensemble to electroacoustic works.  The only thing missing is a purely electronic work and one hopes this will occur in a future release.  Composition dates range from 1994 to 2008 though, properly speaking, the 1994 work was revised in 2006.

Triple Threat (1994, rev 2006) is a sort of mini concerto for three soloists (B flat clarinet, trumpet and violin) and an ensemble of nine.  It is a sort of contemporary concerto grosso in that the soloists are more integrated into the overall texture of the piece.  It is a taught, well organized composition whose technical aspects discussed in the composer’s very useful notes are beyond the scope of this review.  What is well within the scope of this review is the fact that this is a marvelously engaging work in a sort of neo-mid century modernism sort of vein.  The technical aspects which will no doubt entertain theorists function in service of the music and are not an end in themselves.

Still Adrift (2013) is the first of three electroacoustic pieces on the disc.  This is an intense and virtuosic essay ably handled by soloist Adam Tendler.  It is obviously a very personal work evidenced both by its intimate focus and the composer’s own liner notes.  One suspects, however, that something is lost without the visuals and immediacy of seeing a live performance.  Nonetheless this piece easily stands on its own sonic merits.

Bypassing the Ogre (2006) is the first of two tracks for soloist without electronics.  This is perhaps the most experimental of the pieces on this disc.  It is essentially an etude focused on the soloist’s (Peter Evans) formidable improvisatory techniques on the trumpet.  It reminds this reviewer at times of the more experimental work of the justly lauded West Coast composer Robert Erickson (1917-1997) whose work also pioneered developments in electroacoustic musics as well.

Disjecta (2006) for percussion ensemble is actually the most extended work here at 14’10”.  It is sort of a catalog of Feller’s experiments with writing for percussion ensemble using playing techniques and naturally occurring (instead of electronically mediated) acoustic phenomena.  The title comes from Samuel Beckett’s term which he applied to a collection of miscellany.  This one requires close ,multiple listenings to grasp the composer’s intent but it appears to point the way to innovations in writing for percussion.

Sfumato (2006) for violin, bass clarinet and electroacoustic sound comes from the same apparently very productive year, 2006, as do three other tracks on this album.  This is the second electroacoustic track here.  As is often the case with electroacoustic compositions it is frequently difficult for the listener to determine whether the sounds heard are acoustic, electronic or some combination of the two without seeing a score or at least seeing the performance.  What is important is the sound and the impact of the music.  Again the music is engaging and satisfying.

Retracing (2009) for violin and electroacoustic sound is related to Still Adrift in that it incorporates gestures as well as textiles and dancers but stands on its sonic merits as a concert piece as well.  This is a very intense essay beautifully handled by Dorothy Martirano.  Even without the visuals there is much to engage the listener.

Glossolalia (2002) is the second of the two unaccompanied solo pieces here.  This one is for cello.  Unlike Bypassing the Ogre this piece seems to have impressionist leanings.  It is certainly filled with a variety of techniques but the end result is a coherent musical narrative.  It is abstract without an obvious narrative so the listener is free to apply their own impressions elicited by this very intense piece.

X/Winds (2008) for symphonic woodwind ensemble is the piece from which the album derives its title.  Here we return to the rich orchestral palette of the opening track.  Feller seems particularly strong in his ability to write meaningful and engaging music for large ensembles.  It left this reviewer wanting more.

These are incredible performances by highly competent and creative musicians of music which is well served by these skills.  Very engaging music very well performed and recorded.  

Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde


Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings are well liked and frequently quoted in many contexts. Perhaps their most famous use in music is that of Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ for narrator and orchestra. And without doubt his most famous words are those of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ first read on Thursday November 19th, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s 150 years ago.

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Those words were brought to the service of the avant garde in 1967 when Salvatore Martirano in his overtly political ‘L’s GA’ for “gassed masked politico”, “helium bomb”, three 16mm movie projectors and two channel tape recorder. The piece was updated to a version for three video tapes played simultaneously on three monitors sometime in the 1980s.

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Salvatore Martirano (1925-1999) was a major pioneer in electronic music. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951 where he studied composition with Herbert Ellwell. In 1952 he completed a masters degree at the Eastman-Rochester School having studied with Bernard Rogers. He studied with Luigi Dallapicola in Italy from 1952 to 1954 on a Fulbright Fellowship.

While his early work is influenced by the twelve tone traditions which also characterize Dallapicola’s music nothing in his various teachers’ work could possibly prepare one for the music he would produce in his mature works. His long association with the University of Illinois afforded him access to technology and developers with cutting edge ideas that he absorbed and mastered. Until a fair assessment is made of the work and achievements of the computer labs there it is difficult to say if they exceeded that of the Columbia Princeton lab (with the brilliant Milton Babbitt at the punchcards).

The piece at hand in this essay defies verbal description and is not easy listening. It utilizes the text of the Gettysburg Address read by a man in a gas mask breathing helium (which raises the pitch of his voice in a cartoon-like way), 3 sixteen millimeter film projectors and electronic score on tape. The original recording lasts some 25 minutes. I recall that the version for three videotapes on simultaneously running monitors lasted about the same time. But the experience is one of a complex wall of sound and images that is unrelenting until it actually ends. It was embraced as a sort of “cris de cour” in sympathy with the escalating anti-war protests of the time.

Unfortunately the posts on you tube do not contain the video footage which definitely enhances the experience of this true multimedia masterpiece. And it is a prime example of classical political protest music. It is and should be disturbing.

But even in retrospect I doubt that the passing of time can be seen to have diminished the importance of this composition both as music and of sociopolitical protest (that never seems to become irrelevant actually). This work certainly deserves to be heard and experienced much more widely and studied along with Martirano’s other mature works and the body of work which has come out of the hybridization of music and technology of that era.